Proper 23A/Ordinary 28A/Pentecost +17
October 9, 2011
Exodus 32: 1-14
Psalm 106:1-6; 19-23
Matthew 22: 1-14
“Fundamentalist” preachers like Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church love to blame Gays and Lesbians for God’s wrath against the United States. However, Gay people are mentioned a mere six times in the entire Bible. The “Sin of Sodom” – for which it was destroyed by fire – was actually not same-sex-loving relationships, but inhospitality and violence. But if you really want to know what gets the Lord YHWH smitingly mad … it’s IDOLATRY.
In the Hebrew Bible reading this week, the newly-liberated Israelites have an idolatry problem. They have just escaped Pharaoh and his armies, and they have survived in the wilderness on Manna and water from the Lord. Then, just as their leader Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from the Lord (one of which forbids idolatry), they decide he’s taking too long, make a golden calf, and worship it. Whoops.
Prophet after prophet in the Hebrew Bible railed against the people of Israel for taking up the worship of man-made objects and forgetting the Lord YHWH who delivered them from Egypt. Some of the most graphic, insulting language in the Bible is used to describe unfaithful idolaters in their sin: “Your wickedness will punish you, and your apostasies will convict you … on every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and played the whore [with other gods]” (Jer 2:19-20); “My people consult a piece of wood, and their divining rod gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray; and they have played the whore, forsaking their God” (Hos 4:12). The overtaking of Israel by Assyria was blamed – not on homosexuality – but on Israel’s idolatry: “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes” (Hos 11:5-6).
“But we’re modern, rational people. Surely the worship of man-made objects is no longer an issue.”
Oh really? Let’s take a look at …
While corporations are carved out of paper, rather than silver or gold, their larger-than-life status in our culture, economy and government is undeniable. Due to recent Supreme Court decisions, corporations now have the same right to free speech that individuals do. Their influence over the political process through cash donations vastly outweighs that of individual voters. Due to tax loopholes, many of the largest corporations in the country pay virtually no taxes, while middle class taxpayers have to pay 35% of their salaries. They benefit from political impunity: The banks and financial institutions that bankrupted our country through high-risk lending were not only left unpunished, they were rewarded by a mammoth bail-out at the taxpayers’ expense. “Corporate culture” has created a class of designer-suit-wearing, conformist climbers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s fine to do our job to earn our daily bread, but when our devotion to a paper entity blots out all thought of ethics or morals, we have entered into perilous territory with disastrous consequences.
Yes, the Word of God is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. However, the Word of God (the Word of God’s eternal chesed – or Covenant-backed love) should not be mistaken for the individual words of God found in the Bible. The complete Bible as we know it today did not come into being until the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. The Hebrew Bible was compiled largely during the Babylonian Captivity – after thousands of years of Hebrew history had passed. The earliest assemblage of the New Testament Gospels dates from roughly the 4th Century CE. Prior to that, the Church’s knowledge of the Word of God was based on the Torah, and on circulating manuscripts and oral stories of Jesus’ words and deeds. To use the King James Version, English-language Bible as the literal and only version of Divine Truth is to mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. When we use the words of the Bible to violate the rights of those who are different than us, to create churches that shut out the outcasts and the poor, and to write hate into our laws, we are officially abandoning the Word of God.
3. Ten Commandolatry
This Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of a an Ohio judge who insisted on displaying a Ten Commandments poster on the wall of his courtroom – thus letting stand a lower court ruling banning him from doing so. In 1980, the Supreme Court (Stone v. Graham) struck down a Kentucky law requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in every public school classroom. Former President George W. Bush once even declared to the press, “I have no problem with the Ten Commandments posted on the wall of every public place.” When the Lord YHWH gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the idea was for the people to shut up and follow them, not to go waving them around like a cheap display in a flag shop or using them as a political football. For the Lord YHWH desires justice, not self-righteousness: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness” (Isa 58:10). And speaking of flags …
My father is a World War II Veteran. I strongly believe that we owe a debt of service to those who have honorably served our country and sacrificed their lives for us. However, honoring these people is very different from worshiping the flag under which they fought. Our Veterans did not fight for a man-made object, they fought for our Constitution, our democracy and our freedom. The flag is but a symbol for those things. While I do not advocate flag-burning, there is a fine line between honoring our Veterans and serving our country, and making an idol of the flag that represents our Founders’ principles. When we use the flag as a weapon to silence principled opposition, to oppress the alien in our land, and to threaten aggression and torture toward those who are different from us, we have entered the realm of idolatry.
The list goes on and on. I could also rail about status symbolatry (the worship of cars, Swiss watches and designer clothes); footballatry (the worship of Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys, etc. in billion-dollar stadiums); and bodyolatry (the worship of the perfect body image at the expense of our health and sanity) … but you get the idea. We are not immune to the lure of the golden calf – no matter what shape it takes. When we find ourselves giving our lives, our finances and our sanity over to something that is not God (even if that something is supposed to symbolize God), then we are in real trouble. Only God is God. If we made God’s chesed the cornerstone of our lives, the world would look very different: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free …?” (Isa 58:6).